Defense experts think President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Air Force has the needed experience, but some fear her business connections could be a problem.
Trump nominated president of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and former U.S. congresswoman from New Mexico Heather Wilson to take the top position in the Air Force this week.
Wilson falls in line with Trump’s other service secretary picks: wealthy, business-oriented, experienced in their services, but also outsiders.
“I think it’s safe to say that she’s not a defense establishment insider. [Trump] is picking someone who has an Air Force background and who has a congressional background, but has not been within the defense loop for the past eight years or so, he’s drawing on outside talent here,” said Todd Harrison a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Robert M. Lee, a cybersecurity fellow at New America and former officer in the Air Force, agreed.
“She has had what I would consider military, private sector and congressional level responsibilities. That’s exactly the type of person you’d want. Too often do we see folks in political appointee positions that have absolutely no experience,” Lee said.
James Hasik, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Wilson felt like more of a traditional pick compared to Trump’s Army Secretary pick Vincent Viola, who has an extensive business background.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) praised Wilson as an “excellent choice.”
“Having served with her on the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees and worked with her on many issues, I know her to be a serious and thoughtful leader who is well-equipped to meet the challenges we face in national security. I look forward to working with her in this new role,” Thornberry said in a Jan. 23 press release.
While experts agree Wilson is qualified for the job, some worry about her business connections in the defense community.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a Jan. 24 report on Wilson describing her as “a textbook example of the revolving door.”
“The day after Wilson left her position as a representative in the House for New Mexico she began contracting consulting work with several nuclear weapons laboratories that she’d previously overseen as a member on the House Armed Services Committee. Two of those weapons labs were in her home state of New Mexico,” said Lydia Dennett, an investigator for POGO.
Dennett said an Energy Department Inspector General investigation found “little to no” documentation of the services she provided after being paid almost $500,000 over two years.
“We are concerned her close ties and previous work with nuclear labs could lead to a potential conflict of interest,” Dennett said.
She added POGO does not consider Wilson’s past to be disqualifying, but only wants the Government Ethics Office and Senate Armed Services Committee to look into the issues.
Connections aren’t the only area giving Wilson’s critics pause.
Wilson’s voting record pertaining to the LGBTQ population is a concern for some.
Wilson received a zero on the 2004 Human Rights Watch scorecard while she was in Congress. The scorecard notes Wilson voted against expanding hate crime rights to the gay military community and voted against expanding workplace discrimination laws to gays.
Wilson also voted to keep marriage purely between a man and a woman.
The RAND Corporation estimates the gay population in the military is only about 2.2 percent, but it wasn’t until the Obama administration that gays could serve openly.
In addition, the Air Force under former Secretary Deborah Lee James tried to expand the pool of people it could recruit from by being more open to people traditionally not accepted in the military.
Wilson said in 2006 that she tolerates, but does not approve of homosexuality. That is a far cry from the inclusive face the Air Force has tried to put on in the past few years.
Outside of praise and criticism, defense experts said, if confirmed, Wilson has her work cut out for her.
“There are a lot of issues for the Air Force right now and they’re mainly budget and programmatic,” Harrison said. “They think they have cut their end strength too long and they want to rebuild their end strength. … They’re also facing a situation where they appear to have a shortage of pilots.”
Harrison said the Air Force will also have to deal with the modernization bow wave.
“They’ve got several major acquisition programs that are in the process of ramping up simultaneously. The F-35, the B-21, the KC-46 and then nuclear programs that are trying to start,” Harrison said.
But while the Air Force needs funds, Harrison speculated that Trump’s shift in defense strategy may not favor the service.
Trump will focus more on counterterrorism and less on near peer competitors like China and Russia.
Lee said he thinks the biggest issue, even over cybersecurity and the aging nuclear fleet, is personnel and morale.
That is combined with aging infrastructure and acquisition problems.